Monday, December 21, 2009

Black Dynamite is outta sight! (and later out of steam)

Black Dynamite is the spiritual sibling (one might even say "soul brotha") of 2007's double-feature experiment Grindhouse, in that it takes a classic exploitation trope of yesteryear and tweaks it just enough to make it relatable to modern audiences. In Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez took the subgenre of Italian zombie films that popped up in the wake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, reimported them into the American cinematic syntax, and added modern digital effects to achieve some gonzo concepts that kept with the mentality of his inspirations, although not their actual execution. Quentin Tarantino's approach in his hybrid action-horror segment Death Proof was to replace the mind-bogglingly dull dialogue of lesser grindhouse films with his own brand of post-ironic banter -- which, within the provided context, wasn't any less dull, but it was certainly more inane.

Black Dynamite director Scott Sanders and stars/co-writers Michael Jai White and Byron Minns start with a loving, if slightly cheeky, homage to 1970s blaxploitation pics like Cotton Comes to Harlem, Gordon's War, Shaft, and Black Belt Jones, and slowly begin to add layers of influence from a different source -- the spoofs of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker (The Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane, The Naked Gun). Instead of modernizing their concept, Sanders, White, and Minns create an unexpected but very welcome connection between two very different genres, making it a more successful homage than either of the two Grindhouse films, at least for the first two-thirds. Despite losing control of the escalating comedy elements in the final third, the filmmakers still have a lot to be proud of here.

What I love most about Black Dynamite (and what ultimately makes the last act so frustrating), is the restraint it shows at the beginning. Sanders and company understand that comedy, like suspense, is something you build -- something you earn. With that in mind, they keep their intentions close to the chest. The introduction of Black Dynamite (White), our composite blaxploitation hero (he's a former CIA agent, an expert in kung fu, and he plays by nobody's rules but his own), is played only slightly tongue-in-cheek -- the situations are knowingly cliche and the dialogue just a bit too arch to be serious. Most of the early gags involve the particulars of low-budget exploitation films in general -- frames are randomly dropped, a boom mike eases into frame, and one character smokes an unlit cigarette.

As the actual plot is brought in, direct nudges at blaxploitation cinema come in. Not only must Black Dynamite avenge the murder of his brother Jimmy by gangsters, but he also has to investigate the introduction of drugs into the community by those same gangsters. The funk soundtrack becomes key to the comedy at some junctures, as Adrian Younge's mood-setting lyrics often provide an accurate description of the scene we're watching! We're introduced to characters with names like Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), Bullhorn (Minns), and Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson), who alternately hinder and help Black Dynamite on his quest for justice.

Before we've even realized the subtle evolution of the film's tone, it's already working on adding another layer to the comedy -- making fun of its eponymous hero. This is probably Black Dynamite's most sublime comic work. Poking fun at an already comedic construct should feel like more of the same; it shouldn't be unexpectedly side-splitting. The key here is really in Michael Jai White's performance. From the first frame he's in, he establishes Black Dynamite as a righteous, nigh-unflappable mofo who can get the job done, someone's who's just too damned competent at everything. Right as that characterization starts to get stale, however, White introduces a fallibility we didn't even know we'd been begging for. When Black Dynamite loses his legendary cool at a prostitute who's only crime is interrupting his jive monologue, the timing couldn't be more perfect -- the moment is where we want it to be in the scene and the scene is exactly where we need it to be in the film.

There are occasional sequences that drag on too long and one in particular (Black Dynamite and his crew cleaning up the streets) that is over before you can register it started. These are minor hiccups, though, and there are great moments within these scenes that make their unfortunate pacing forgivable.

However, the last act of Black Dynamite goes completely off the rails. During what seems like a climactic raid on a warehouse, Black Dynamite discovers that a new villain, hiding at a remote location, is responsible for the evil goings-on. I assumed that the movie would cut to a faux trailer for Black Dynamite 2 or something, because it would be ridiculous (and not in a way consistent with the film's humor up to this point) for them to go face this new, completely unforeshadowed threat now. Well, the movie does keep going, shifting into a weak, cut-down imitation of A Fistful of Yen (from The Kentucky Fried Movie). Then the movie gets even dumber still in a sequence I can't describe without making it sound ten times more awesome than it actually is. I think Sanders wants his audience yelling, "No f**king WAY!" but instead the response is, "You've gotta be f**king kidding me."

It hurts when a movie like Black Dynamite squanders its good will. There's so much that I love about the film's understanding of comedy, timing, and how to turn expectation into laughter. Alas, none of that understanding is apparent when the film enters its final act. A shame, too. Black Dynamite starts out as one bad mothaf**ka, but by the time the credits roll, it's transformed into a jive turkey.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

52 Perfect Movies: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

This is probably going to be one of the lesser-known films of this series, but it belongs nevertheless. From the first time I saw it at a special screening in New York's Greenwich Village, I have been in love with Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise--a shining example of an era in time and in cinema that is forever gone.

Trouble in Paradise is of a certain genre of movie that simply doesn't exist anymore, and for which there is no equivalent. A sly, sophisticated and slick romantic comedy, it is about as far as you can possibly get from the so-called "chick flicks" of today, offering viewers a sublime experience if they but open themselves up to it.

Director Ernst Lubitsch, a German expatriate who had come over to Hollywood during the silent era, became known for a very specific trademark style. In a time when studios controlled content and most directors didn't have anything like the kind of leeway they later would, Lubitsch managed to carve out a unique feel for his work, which became known as "The Lubitsch Touch". This can be seen in such films as The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait.

But before any of those was this one, a delicious comedy starring Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall as a couple of con artists who attempt to fleece a millionairess of her fortune. Along the way, Marshall begins to fall for his prey (played by Kay Francis), drawing the jealousy of his typically cool-as-a-cucumber accomplice/lover Hopkins.

Hopkins and Marshall are amazing, tearing into a delightful script provided by Hungarian playwright Aladar Laszlo--on whose play the movie was based--and Hollywood workhorse Grover Jones, who pulled off the screen adaptation. This was before the enforcement of the censoring Hayes code, and it's absolutely delightful how much innuendo and biting satire the writers were able to effortlessly weave into almost every line of this terrific screenplay.

This is movie screenwriting as it has never been done since those heady days of the early 1930s--intellectual without being pretentious, brimming with outrageous wordplay without being vulgar or obvious, and pulsating with grace and class from beginning to end. Along with Marshall and Hopkins, benefiting from this treasure of a script is a cast boasting such character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, and the one and only Edward Everett Horton.

Horton was a comic genius on screen, who nearly stole every Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle he was in, and nearly does the same here, playing his patented bumbling middle-aged dandy to the hilt. He is one of my very favorite character actors of all time, and its always a pleasure to watch him work.

Those who equate movies of this time with the more chaste material of the late 1930s and 1940s are in for a bit of a surprise at the level of frank bedroom humor that goes on. In fact, although it would never draw such a rating today, the picture was given the equivalent of an "R" in some foreign countries, and was even banned in Finland. But it's all in good, harmless fun, and one can't help but chuckle at nearly every line of what is, for my money, a completely perfect script.

When the movie code went into effect in 1934, the movie was effectively prevented from being reissued to theaters, and so became something of an obscure little oddity for decades. In fact, it was never issued on VHS, and not on DVD for many years, leading lovers of the Lubitsch gem to seek it out at film festivals and from celluloid dealers. Thankfully, it was recently released on DVD, and I strongly urge lovers of 1930s cinema to immediately give it the Netflix treatment if they haven't seen it.

Lubitsch had a way of creating an atmosphere that was all his own, and this movie might very well be the earliest example of the "The Lubitsch Touch" fully formed. Although the script is largely what makes this such an unforgettable movie, it wouldn't have have been able to be so fully realized without the effortless richness and panache that Lubitsch brought to every production with which he was associated. He had a way of evoking elegance and suggestiveness at the same time, leaving much to the viewer's imagination, yet also making sure they got the point.

As I've said in previous entries, the early 1930s was a time of such exuberant experimentation in American film, and Trouble in Paradise is a beautiful example of that exuberance at its best. You know how they always say, "They don't make 'em like this anymore"? Well folks, in our far courser modern culture, they very literally do not make 'em like this anymore. But we'll always have Trouble in Paradise to remind us of when grace and class were at a premium in Hollywood moviemaking.

NEXT UP: Top Hat (1935)

Friday, December 11, 2009

52 Perfect Movies: The Public Enemy (1931)

William Wellman's masterpiece The Public Enemy is not simply an excellent gangster movie. It is the gangster movie; that is to say, it is the prototype, the epitome of the classic gangster film. This should not be confused with something like The Godfather, which took the genre to a different, more specifically mafia-oriented place. I'm talking about the old-school, all-American gangster movie here.

And make no mistake, these movies are all about America. The American dream, or rather the very dark side of it. They're about what desperate men were willing to do to grab their piece of the pie and hold on to it, in a world that didn't give a damn about them. And The Public Enemy illustrates that concept to perfection.

Of course, none of that could have happened without the man whose presence is really what this movie is all about: The one and only James Cagney. In a time when film acting, especially in the new sound era, was still developing from the broad histrionics of the stage, Cagney brought the art into the modern age. He was subtle; he was nuanced; he was real. He has a charisma so powerful that you can't take your eyes off him for a split-second. He owns the screen, and this is the part that forever etched him into the mainstream consciousness.

As Tom Powers, Cagney is pure joy to watch. His every movement, and every line of dialogue is a gem. In this time before the Hays Code, movies were able to get away with a bit more, and so Cagney is able to portray a gangster we identify with and root on despite ourselves. He may "lose in the end" to prove that "crime doesn't pay", but we know that's just a pretense. Make no mistake, despite his ruthlessness, he is the hero of this movie.

He just may be my favorite actor of all time, and this movie will show you why. The naturalism--he comes across not as an actor, but as a genuine wiseguy off the street. Pacino and DeNiro would be nothing without this guy blazing the trail, my friends.

And that's not to say he isn't surrounded by a supporting cast worth a fortune. We have the sexy Joan Blondell; veteran actress Beryl Mercer as Powers' large-looming mother; hard-boiled Brit Murray Kinnell as mentor Putty Nose; Leslie Fenton as the slimy Nails Nathan; and best of all, the great Robert O'Connor as the cool-as-a-cucumber mob boss Paddy Ryan. O'Connor is cast just right, using what time he's given to create a truly memorable character--the potato chip-eating scene alone is worth the price of the DVD.

And then there's Jean Harlow. Some have harped on her seeming out-of-place in this picture, with a finishing-school accent that comes out of left field. I'm not one of those people. To watch the ultimate blond bombshell interact onscreen with Cagney is pure magic. The scene in which they glide into a nightclub together and start dancing, almost defies words. You just know you're watching two larger-than-life legends of the silver screen impose their aura on everything around them. I love it.

This is a movie that takes an unflinching look at the world of organized crime in the time of Prohibition, a virtual free-for-all of bootlegging and violence. And it's not all about glorifying, to be sure--the film shows us the seedy underbelly of this world as well, in a way that we wouldn't see again to such a degree until the new generation gangster flicks of the 1970s like Mean Streets.

It's a daring film from a daring era. Powers' seduction by Paddy Ryan's wife is dealt with in surprisingly frank fashion for the time, as is his out-of-wedlock shack-up with Blondell. Then there's the unforgettable climactic scene in the rain, beautifully shot and prefiguring 1940s noir, and that infamous closing image of Powers' "homecoming".

This is why the early 1930s is one of my favorite eras of movie-making, and The Public Enemy exemplifies the spirit of experimentation and exuberance that characterized it.

I've seen The Public Enemy many times, and I can honestly say I'm never not in the mood to see it. For me, this is comfort cinema at its best, and it's always my pleasure to worship at the altar of Cagney. I suggest you give it a try--you'll never look back.

NEXT UP: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

52 Perfect Movies: City Lights (1931)

To give you an idea of how truly amazing Charles Chaplin's City Lights is, Orson Welles--the man who made Citizen Kane--considered it his favorite movie.

The great cinematic legend, Chaplin is someone I would personally put on my very short list of true comic geniuses of the 20th century, along with Groucho Marx, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This film is the perfect example of why I put him at that level. For me, a true comic genius, one who steps out from the pack of those who are merely very funny, is someone who transcends pure comedy, someone who does something more with his work, who adds a level of almost intangible profundity to what he does, so that he has the power to do more than merely make you laugh.

There's no question Charlie Chaplin did this throughout his incredible career, and for my money, there is no film of his, feature or short, which illustrates that as well as City Lights. The movie represents a powerful evolution in his famous "Little Tramp" character, and an extremely daring balance of comedy and pathos/drama, even moreso than previous efforts like The Kid, another great one.

This is a movie that took so many chances, and they all paid off in ways that few chances in the history of cinema ever have. For one thing, Chaplin made it at the beginning of the 1930s, when the motion picture industry had already converted completely to sound. And yet he insisted on making it a silent film. In his eyes, it was integral to way the film would work.

And it's a good thing Chaplin stuck to his guns. Although the film does have a recorded musical soundtrack, it is indeed silent, thus the movie's original subtitle, "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime". There's something innately powerful about the wordless emotions put forth on the screen under the masterful hand of Chaplin: director, writer and star. He'd been doing it for years by this point, but City Lights is the ultimate distillation of his art.

Chaplin, as the Tramp, falls in love with a blind flower girl, who, because she cannot see, believes he is a wealthy businessman with the ability to help her pay for crucial eye surgery to restore her vision; determined to keep her love, the Tramp does whatever it takes to raise the money needed. On paper, it is melodramatic mush, but in the hands of Chaplin it becomes a genuinely remarkable filmgoing experience.

And while there is much earnest sentiment flying around, Chaplin manages to perfectly blend the comedy which initially put him on the map in the first place. Via his friendship with a drunken millionaire, and his many intrepid attempts at making money, Chaplin is able to interject hilariously funny material, yet never loses sight of the genuine feeling at the heart of the story. Among these comedy vignettes, by the way, is the classic prize fight routine, with the Tramp trying his hand at boxing.

There are few filmmakers who were ever able to seamlessly blend comedy and drama like Chaplin, and he never did it better than here. Talk about a filmmaker at the height of his powers. And the sentiment, the heart of the piece, is so pure, so true, and so moving, that it actually manages to infuse the comedy with an almost indescribable flavor of emotion, resulting in that very rare viewer response of combined melancholy and amusement that so few films ever succeed in eliciting.

Perhaps the finest moment in the history of Chaplin's Tramp character may be the closing moment of this film. Some have called it the most memorable film ending ever, and it's hard to dispute that point. It certainly is one of the most serene moments in cinematic history--the flower girl, post-surgery, her sight restored, seeks to meet her benefactor face-to-face for the first time, to thank him. And of course, upon seeing him as the Tramp instead of the wealthy businessman she thought he was, she nevertheless accepts him wholly and completely.

Again, what on paper would seem maudlin and trite is pulled off so perfectly by Chaplin as to be a thing of wonder. Supposedly Chaplin filmed his scenes with Virginia Cherrill, the actress who played the blind girl, literally hundreds of times trying to land the perfect take. And that insistence on perfection shows through in the finished product. Watching that look of unequalled relief, adoration and pride on the Tramp's face, a flower clasped nervously in hand, how else can one think any different?

NEXT UP: The Public Enemy (1931)